Michael Chabon reinvented the alternate-history genre with The Yiddish Policemen's Union, his novel about a world where Alaska became the Jewish homeland. So where are the great alternate histories of New York? The city's history is full of disasters and bizarre schemes that could have turned out very differently. Here are five timeline turning-points that might have erased New York as we know it forever.
New Orange (1673). Those butter-fingered Dutch lost New York not once, but twice. The first time, the British came and seized the city of New Amsterdam by force in 1664, naming it New York after Charles II's brother the Duke of York. But then the Dutch took it back in the Third Dutch-English War of 1673 and renamed it "New Orange," after the Prince of Orange.
After that, the Dutch were living in a siege mentality and preparing to do whatever it took to keep the Big Orange in their grasp. But their politicians let them down, giving the city back to the Brits without a fight, in exchange for Suriname in South America. But what if the Dutch had hung on to it? It could have stayed Dutch long after 1776, and Americans would be making pilgrimages to the cannibis cafes of New Orange.
The Great Fire of New York (1835). This terrible conflagration started near Pearl St., and quickly spread to Exchange Place, the NYSE and Wall Street. It burned for between 16 and 24 hours, destroying 674 buildings across 17 blocks and 50 acres. Fire fighters had a hard time getting water because the Hudson was frozen solid. Metal from shutters and roofs melted and ran down the streets.
But it could have been much, much worse. The Great Fire of London, just 169 years earlier, burned for four days, not one. The New York Conflagration reached the top of the Tontine Hall, too high for the cold-numbed firefighters' hoses to reach. The last-ditch plan of using a huge "gin puncheon" (cask) to get water onto the roof tiles saved the upper part of the city. How would New York look now if the fire had destroyed mid-town Manhattan? Hint: the actual street where the fire started, Merchant St., doesn't exist any more, since that part of the city was rebuilt with a new layout.
The Blasting of Flood Rock (1885). In the nineteenth century, a section of the East River from 90th street to around 100th street, near the Harlem River was known as "Hell Gate" because it was so difficult for sea-faring vessels to navigate. It had a giant whirlpool (because of currents from Long Island Sound) and huge jagged rocks. A thousand ships ran aground every year. The Harbor Master of New York begged the federal government for help. So the U.S. Army destroyed the biggest rock, Flood Rock, by detonating 285,000 pounds of an explosive mixture called "Rack-A-Rock," plus 5,000 pounds of dynamite. It may have been the largest civil detonation up to that point. Here's a photo which 12-year-old Mary Newton took:
What if the Army had turned down the gig, or been unable to pull it off? Private efforts had already blasted some of the smaller rocks in Hell Gate. But without the destruction of Flood Rock, New York would have been unable to reach its full potential as a port city. Just 40 years after this blast, New York overtook London as the largest city in the world.
LOMEX (1941). Robert Moses, aka "Bob The Builder," had a plan to knock down a huge stretch of Lower Manhattan, including SOHO, and build a massive freeway across the city. It would have connected the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. At one point, in 1946, Moses proposed a six-lane elevated expressway in the vicinity of Canal St. Just imagine the huge overpasses. Plans continued into the 1950s. Here's an artist's conception of what SOHO would have looked like:
A huge grass-roots movement opposed the development, led by Jane Jacobs, author of The Life and Death of Great American Cities. But in the end, it was skyrocketing budget estimates for the project, plus the failure of downtown Manhattan office buildings to generate the expected traffic, that scuttled the project. (As recently as 1998, planners were discussing reviving the project on the Usenet group misc.transport.roads.) If the city and federal bureaucracy hadn't delayed LOMEX for so long, SOHO wouldn't exist today.
Neu York (1946). Finally, here's an "alternate history map" that shows what NYC would look like if the Nazis had won World War II. Melissa Gould painstakingly reshaped "Neu York," giving streets German names (Rhein instead of Canal) and eliminating post-war buildings and anything with a Jewish name. (Via Claire Light.)
Blade Runner concept art by Syd Mead.